Melissa Burr's Northwest Winescape
Melissa Burr has forged a fairytale path through the Willamette Valley wine scene. Stoller Vineyards’ tenured star winemaker has ascended from intern to one of wine’s premiere directors of winemaking over the last 15 years, setting the bar for style and grace. She has also lead the winery into the global marketplace, increasing volume without sacrificing quality. Here she tells us about her success at Stoller, her rise to through the winemaking ranks, and her terroir-driven micro-vintage venture called History.
Alcohol Professor: The story goes that Bill Stoller hired you to make Stoller Wine after just two years of experience as an intern in the winemaking industry. How did you make that jump and blend the elements of “proving yourself” as a winemaker while letting your style show throughout the process?
Melissa Burr: I started in 2003 making a small amount of wine for Bill at Chehalem winery, which at that time he co-owned with Harry Peterson-Nedry. I was fortunate to have him and his team to learn as much as I could about Stoller wines historically as they had been making wine from Stoller vineyards from the first harvest. I asked lots of questions to my colleagues in the industry, I hired a consultant, Ray Walsh, to help and I started working with Kyriakos Kynigopoulos, a consultant based out of Burgundy (who is Greek) and consults globally. I took seminars, networked, and put in the time.
AP: You grew the Stoller brand from 1,000 cases to now over 60,000 annually. How do you keep your winemaker’s fingerprint on the wine, while focusing the voice of the brand loud and clear in every sip?
MB: We have grown over the course of over a 10 year span, using estate grown fruit so we afforded the time to become very clear on what type of wines, what tiers and styles we want to make from the vineyard. The team has grown and we have a talented group of people across the board in marketing, sales and on the production team. We have an innovative president who joined the team in 2012 who has been instrumental in conducting all the moving parts and mapping the growth.
Bill Stoller the owner and proprietor has a lot of patience combined with vision, and has chosen to afford the brand to acquire the people, equipment, vineyard plantings and capital that over time has allowed for success. I am involved in the wine blending, the final style, the creation of new wines, the evolution of the wines we are already making stylistically and the vineyards we source from.
AP: Coming from a background in naturopathic medicine, how has that influenced your winemaking style and approach to the process?
MB: I try to take a broad look at processes and find solutions to problems that come up, similar to the approach I imagine a doctor would take with a patient. I like to look for uniqueness in the wines we make, and the fruit we grow and enhance that in a wine blend so people can experience the Dundee Hills volcanic soil, the wine grape and the vintage.
AP: Aside from running the wine program at Stoller, you’ve recently launched History. You’ve made relationships with growers who have some of the oldest vine plantings in the Pacific Northwest. How has this project evolved your wine voice?
MB: History is an intriguing discovery process for me as a winemaker. I am sourcing fruit from Washington as well as Oregon, and working with varieties that are new to me. Learning about the different vineyards, the people behind them, the wines themselves is really a neat opportunity.
AP: How does your approach vary from Stoller to History?
MB: I am very hands off with the History wines, meaning that I am not making decisions that change the style of the wine very much at all. I use very little new oak, and keep the wines transparent. Stoller is similar, however some of the wines at Stoller we drive the style by choice. Our legacy series Pinot Noirs have specific styles and we start there before we even begin making the wines.
AP: How do you see History evolving over the next few years and what are you hoping to showcase within the future?
MB: History will grow in production over the next few years with the addition of new vineyards. I see History being a small sized wine brand that is mostly direct sales and wine club due to its size, with events and pop up tastings held throughout the year.
AP: The Oregon and Washington wine scenes have been enjoying a larger share of the spotlight over the last few years. What elements of the PNW wine community do you think make it unique?
MB: I think the PNW has a down to earth approach to wine making and growing, with so many passionate people following their dreams and being in the industry. There is a deep sense of connection within the winemaking and grape growing community that emulates to all those who come to the wineries, taste the wines at events, and meet the people involved.
AP: Your journey through the wine world has been amazingly unique. What advice would you give a budding wine maker or even a younger version of yourself?
MB: I would say to get involved as much as you can. Take classes, go to tastings, visit wineries, read, buy lots of wines from all over and of course drink them. If you're interested in winemaking, go and do a harvest as an intern. Travel to wine regions. Try to work in the industry and start at the bottom, whatever it takes. Make sure you know how much money the industry averages are also!
History is more of a movement than it is a line of fine wines. It preserves the origins of the Pacific Northwest wine legacy that would easily be forgotten. Burr’s drive to keep the traditions alive and, at the same time, expand the brand of Stoller to new heights is both admirable and inspiring. The evolving wine scape is fueled by the passion of artists like Burr, but it’s her dedication to telling the story of the vine that sets her work apart.